Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Penny Or a Smile

June: Be Generous

June is generosity month for my happiness project. Consequently I have never experienced more homeless people on the train and on the streets than this month. Just a massive wave of needy people seemed to find me at every turn. Every day on my way to work or school I found myself bumping into the same 10 homeless people that frequent the lines of this city's maze of transportation. So naturally, remembering my task for the month, I would try to shyly put my head down as to not anger the gods with my obsession of collecting pocket change, a greedy, useless little habit I blame on no one but my inner Ebenezer Scrooge. I swear they knew somehow what I was up to. It seemed as though they were somehow following my blog and realized they all needed to group together and follow my commute, assuming I would be easy target for their speeches.

As the month progressed I grew to resent all these panhandlers. Yes, completely resent them, I took them personally as I do most things in my life. One time a particular panhandler asked for help, she gave a riveting sermon that would have made Obama weep at his sad sap of an inauguration speech. So I offered the best I could at the time, a bottle of water. On a hot summer day a bottle of water is salvation to any human being. I offered my water and she said she rather change. I was deeply offended. I wanted to curse her out. I wanted to show to everyone what a sham she was, what a lazy crook. I vowed to not help anyone asking for change, because this certainly would make us even. Partly (and by partly I mean mostly) my response was an extension of frustration and resentment caused by all the people in my life I wanted to give things to, who wouldn't accept it. All the ex-boyfriends who didn't take my love, or my time, or help, or compliments, or take me into their arms. It was the resentment I felt when the people I cared about would not accept me as I was, as I would be, as I could be. Who was she to deny my water? Pure water, perfectly as it was.

So I started doing what any normal flawed human being would do, I judged. I judged all bums, panhandlers, vagabonds, street persons. I judged them to see who was worthy of my penny, who was worthy of my help. Somehow my brain calculated precise algorithms that in fact equaled pay back for that tramp that denied my water. I did this for about two weeks.

Today I sat in a subway car scribbling away in my notepad as I frequently do. On Flatbush Avenue rambling on about the greatness of generosity, the grander, how we should all aspire to be generous. As it occurs to most writers a sudden block of inspiration appeared as I tried to piece together the definition of generosity. At that precise moment the universe suddenly did what it does best.

a) Throw shit in my face. b) Show me where I am wrong.

Of course the universe decided to throw me a combo of both A and B for good measure. A young man walks into the train car. He is blind. I have seen him a few times drumming the ground to the beat of his own heart's music as he holds on to a walking stick. He asks for change, for food, for acknowledgment. As he makes his slow decent towards me, all I think about is all the reasons why I shouldn't help. I think about the man who just gave him two dollars, and pretend that second dollar was from me. I think how someone else should take care of it. How my doing something would make no difference.  My mind went frantic figuring ways i could hide my face, a way I wouldn't have to see him. I was looking for a way to hide from a blind man. But my heart knows better and i heard a voice inside me say, "That's whats wrong with this world everyone is waiting on the next person to fix it". We (specially me at that moment) rely on someone else to be kind so we wont have to be. Rely on someone else to care. Relying on someone else to be generous so we wont have to be.

Something miraculous happened on that train. As this man made his way through the subway car practically everyone on the train gave. I saw countless men pull out dollar bills. No hesitation in their faces, one by one giving more than necessary. No one passed judgement, no one asked questions. People just gave with no expectations. That is what generosity is ; giving for the act of giving. Giving is beautiful and in its most pure form selfless. These strangers gave and although I may never know all the reasons behind their actions I know deep down they felt it was correct. That in giving there was some type of truth their hearts could not deny.

By the time he made his way to me I looked in his face tenderly as if he was a sign from god, as if I knew him from a past life. I realized how wrong I was to condition being a good person, the type of person I aspire to be. I acknowledged how wrong I was to limit kindness to certain people. To be greedy with my help. I could no longer hide myself from this man who dragged in the truth with him. I gave the man what I had. I gave him a smile, even though he couldn't see it (but deep down inside I like to think he felt it). I gave him half a cookie I was enjoying, I figured it was too good not to share. Sometimes all we have to give is a smile.

I learned that generosity is not in the giving, it is in the selfless act of not expecting back. Even a smile.


  1. I understand where you're coming from, but I recommend giving to a charity intend of to random homeless people. There was this one time where I bought myself a bagel at one of those carts, and there was a homeless guy Begging just a few feet away. So I bought an extra bagel and offered it to him just cause. He declined it, he only wanted money. Probably for drugs. There was also this other time where this bum I've seen many times is walking with a limp and crying about how he's in pain and that he needs help and whatnot. Well guess what stop he got off at and guess how quickly he switched from walking with
    A limp and crying, to this normal looking guy! All I'm saying if you want to be generous then give to a charity that helps out homeless who really want help. Oh
    And I think that "blind guy" reeally did see you because he's not blind at all.

  2. i give money when i feel compelled to do so, so im very familiar with the feeling. i've also ignored crackheads on the train and people that clearly capable of doing something constructive but would rather beg on the subway and streets. there are people that have been panhandling for years already, with the same story. the same person saying her house burned down for 10 years now and how she needs money to stay somewhere the night. the guy that needs "something to eat" that lingers outside of bars @ night, etc. if it feels good to do it, then do it. I've had people reject the food i offer them.. I had a guy that i offered my barely touched left over bbq's dinner to tell me he was a vegetarian. really? you are a bum, you eat from the garbage, but you are too good to eat a delicious piece of cow ass? alrighty then. Point being, don't do it expecting gratification because you won't find it that way. if at the moment someone asks for money, it warms your heart or puts a smile on your face to cough up a dollar or a quarter or loose change and lint, then do it. Once they walk away, you will either never see them again and always wonder if what you did or didn't do made a difference, or you will see them again with the same story, and wonder if you were conned out of that one dollar (that will not make you richer, btw)... Having said that, if i were to play devil's advocate- even those that are asking for money and saying no to food and the ones that you know are just constantly on the same routine of begging and wasting the money, they are as sad as they lead you to believe, really and truly. at some point, they threw their hands in the air, decided they couldn't pull themselves out of the ten foot hole they dug themselves into, and chose to rely on their addictions to help them forget how poor their homeless loveless quality of life is and forget, if only temporarily that all they have left is the cheap thrill of whatever their drug of choice is. it is extremely sad, enough to pity. we don't know where they really came from, how they wound up in the streets... but they are someone's kid, someone's brother, someone's sister, someones uncle. can you imagine? some horrible chain of events led them through the motions to end up begging for the loose change you lose in your couch, or left over lunch money... i'm not encouraging supporting a habit, if anything, maybe this proves that the key to this is prevention, a solution before it becomes a problem (on a much grander scale, not something you have control over as an individual) i'm just saying, do what feels right at the time. if it tickles you to grab a handful of change out of the bottom of your purse, do it. if you wanna give away a piece of fruit or a bottle of water or your left over lunch, thats great. you never know when one person might genuinely appreciate it, so you have to have some sort of faith in humanity so that you can trust your instincts and share when you can. everyone has their vices, in some form, and it's not our jobs to judge or punish strangers for it.

  3. giving is a great gift to all. be open to all. be giving to all and that will all come back to you!


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